[Note: The following was first published in the April 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
One of the issues that stood out for me during the recent controversy over the new Castle parks in southwest Alberta is the lack of an overall strategic plan for the conservation of our Eastern Slopes, not just the Castle River watershed. Such a plan would protect all headwaters and critical habitats, as well as provide designated trails for Off-Highway Vehicles that do not conflict with conservation goals. As pointed out by many, the banning of OHVs in the Castle parks will just push OHV users into other areas, some of which are headwaters regions, such as those found in the Oldman, Red Deer and North Saskatchewan River watersheds. Are not these headwaters just as important as those of the Castle?
As I was writing this column, the Alberta Government on March 1 announced that it would extend the deadline from March 20 to April 19 to comment and take a survey about the draft Castle parks management plan. As well, the consultation is being expanded to include “wider conservation and land use issues in the southern Eastern Slopes, Castle parks and surrounding areas, including linear disturbances, off-highway vehicle use and trail planning.” The government is scheduling public information sessions “in the coming months.” Although OHVs will not be allowed in the parks, there will be designated OHV trails and facilities created outside the parks. So it looks like the government is responding to concerns expressed through their survey and other feedback and is indeed looking beyond the new parks. But are they looking far enough?
The creation of the Castle parks came about as a result of the South Saskatchewan Regional Plan that was developed under the Land Use Framework (LUF). The LUF has a checkered history. Announced in 2008 by then Minister Ted Morton, the LUF was to provide the overall land use plans that would guide Alberta into a sustainable future, balancing the needs of an ever-growing human population with the resources available.
Initially the plans were supposed to be in place by 2012, an ambitious goal. Sure enough, the goal did not even come close to being met. Out of the seven proposed regional plans, only two (Lower Athabasca and South Saskatchewan) have been completed. Of the other five, only the North Saskatchewan Regional Plan (started in 2014) is in process, although the pace has been frustratingly slow if not stagnated. Change of government, budget cuts and the complexity of the process have taken their toll. But the need is still there, especially in our headwater regions where the quality of our drinking water is at stake, as well as critical habitats for game species and endangered wildlife, and quality recreational experiences in truly wild places. Perhaps it’s time for the government to show the leadership it displayed with the Castle parks, and develop and implement a strategic plan for the Eastern Slopes north of the Castle parks and incorporate that plan into the coming regional plans.
Non-mechanized Anglers and Hunters
Another issue that raised its head as a result of the Castle parks announcement was the lack of representation non-mechanized hunters and anglers have on certain conservation matters. Like many, I thought the Alberta Fish and Game Association would be in favor of the new parks because they would provide the protection these areas need to ensure viable fish and game populations. However, in a February 16 news release the AFGA came out squarely in favor of OHV use in the parks. The release failed to mention any of the positive things the parks would clearly do for fish and wildlife conservation, including maintaining quality hunting and fishing opportunities. This came from a conservation organization that bans the use of OHVs or any other motorized vehicle on its own Wildlife Trust Fund properties, set aside to preserve wildlife habitat.
Now, I’ve supported the AFGA for a long time and have done work for them and my local club for many years. My friend and colleague Duane Radford and I wrote and edited the book, Conservation Pride and Passion (2008), the 100-year history of the organization, in which we worked with AFGA members from across the province. As well, I realize anglers, hunters and wildlife watchers are a diverse group, and representing all views on all issues is difficult if not impossible. However, I do feel the AFGA dropped the ball on this one. Apparently, so did many others as evidenced by the e-mail messages I received when the news release was distributed.
Many people know of my association with the AFGA and wanted an explanation about the group’s position on the parks I could not provide, except to say I was equally shocked. When I posted my shock on Facebook, the reaction was instant and likewise negative to the AFGA’s position. To be fair, some people did support the group’s position but they were clearly the minority. Several of those shocked by the AFGA were AFGA members, some threatening to withdraw their memberships.
Backcountry Hunters and Anglers
A disagreement over one issue should not make or break a membership, but AFGA’s stand does cause one to wonder where his or her views on certain issues might be better represented. During my research for my previous column on the Castle parks, I investigated the various conservation organizations in Montana, seeking to understand the strong and cooperative conservation ethic there. One that popped up as most interesting to me was the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.
BHA represents people who appreciate hunting and fishing on foot in truly wild places, and want to see these areas protected not only for the quality recreation opportunities they provide but also because they provide core fish and wildlife habitat that sustains many fish and game populations elsewhere. They are not against OHVs—many members use them to get to trail heads leading into non-motorized backcountry—but feel they should be left to areas that can sustain their wear-and-tear.
The organization got its start in 2004 in Oregon when a group of like minded individuals, upset with how the United State’s wild places were being managed, got together to do something about it. They decided to form an organization that would represent their views to governments and work with other organizations to conserve wild lands.
Over the last 13 years, their membership has grown to thousands. They have chapters in 24 states and one Canadian province—British Columbia.
I didn’t think much more about this group until a person who contacted me about the AFGA news release suggested I join BHA because it was trying to form a chapter in Alberta and he felt such an organization was needed here. It turned out BHA members in Alberta were organizing meetings in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge to see if enough people were interested in forming a chapter. I attended the meeting in Edmonton and was pleased with the turnout, including many young men and women. The discussion was good and did include the Castle parks, the catalyst that caused many to attend.
Although the BHA is based in Montana, once a chapter is formed all dues and donations collected remain with that chapter to do local projects. If you want to continue to have hunting and fishing opportunities in truly wild lands, check this group out.
Comments are always welcome (below).